Adulis Ertitrean Restuarant – London
Words by Al Humphries
If this project is about discovering tasty new food, traveling without traveling, broadening horizons, meeting new people, and fun and fascinating conversation, then E for Eritrea is going to take some beating as we munch our way towards Z. Even intelligent people who I spoke to about my impending Eritrean meal knew virtually nothing about the country. Neither Tom nor I have been there. Nor could I drum up a single friend, friend-of-friend, or Facebook ‘friend’ who had been. So it was a step into the unknown as we stepped from a very rainy, January night on the Brixton Road into London’s little slice of the Horn of Africa, the Eritrean restaurant called ‘Adulis’. I had an inkling of what to expect: I once cycled across Ethiopia.
Eritrea was part of Ethiopia until its protracted battle for independence succeeded in 1991. I remember Ethiopia as being distinct from all the other parts of Africa I have visited. The language, the way the people looked, the calendar, the alphabet, the music, the history: all of this stood out strongly. And so did the food. So I was excited to sample a taste of Eritrea. We were not disappointed. Adulis has done a great job of looking trendy whilst still maintaining a friendly, welcoming and very African feel. 60% of their customers are Eritreans, we were told: a ringing endorsement for authenticity. Brought to the table were two silver platters -at least two feet across- covered with a flat, round, spongy pancake.
I was familiar with injera from my time in Ethiopia. Its cold, flabby, sour taste is certainly distinctive and I confess to remembering it less than fondly. Injera serves as table cloth, cutlery, and carbohydrate all together. The meal is eaten in a similar fashion to many Indian meals, tearing off a portion of injera and using it to scoop meat or vegetables to your mouth. The difference between an Indian and an Eritrean meal is that here each of the portions of food – stewed meat, spicy vegetables, or fish caught off the coast of Eritrea – was scooped from its small bowl and served on the injera itself. I cannot think of a more visually exciting or beautifully presented cuisine than this.
Atop most of the heaps of food was placed a shard of bright green chili, a vivid caution of how spicy much of the food was. After much admiration of the vast platters before us, we dived in. Some hunted haphazardly, scooping at random with their fingerfuls of injera. I, taking my reviewer’s role seriously, decided to work methodically in a clockwise direction round the tray, sampling each sauce in turn. Goggling eyes and gasping for beer from my neighbour Paul signaled that he had unwisely eaten a whole chili.
In the merriment I forgot where I had reached on my rotation so turned to the method of sampling whatever generated the loudest “oohs” of enjoyment. My particular favourite dish was the Adulis Special. It was served separately from the injera platter on top of a small charcoal burner. Chunks of lamb and strips of onions and green peppers sizzled in a delicious oily sauce. It was a near unanimous winner amongst the carnivores at the table. But our two vegetarian fellows did not feel too hard done by; they declared Eritrean food to be one of the tastiest, most filling and varied of vegetarian cuisines they had ever tried.
After the meal I was keen that we should see how coffee is served, Eritrean style. A lady sat on a low stool on a carpet of (fake) grass. She pulled a white linen scarf over her head and began roasting a pan of green coffee beans over a glowing red heater. Shaking the pan back and forth the beans began to brown and roast, releasing a strong, sharp aroma which mingled magically from the thin plumes of frankincense blooming from a small charcoal burner beside her. When the beans were ready she brought the pan to our table to allow us to savour the aroma before retiring to crush the beans and prepare the coffee in a long-necked terracotta flask.
The coffee, strong and sharp, is traditionally served with a large bowl of popcorn. We washed down the whole evening with a flaggon of Eritrean honey wine, drier and more crisp than mead, served in a glass flask resembling something from a school chemistry laboratory. One of the real delights of the evening, beyond the charming service, the fascinating and flavoursome food, beyond even my surprised chat with the Eritrean ambassador who happened to be enjoying a taste of home that night, or the fabulous rhythmic Eritrean music, were all the small quirks and the tiny surprises so enjoyed by anyone who travels to new lands. Eating with our hands, watching our coffee beans roast before our eyes, slugging honey wine from a flask: these are the small things that add laughter to your conversation and create a more lively buzz to your night out.
A night at Adulis is £20 well spent – food you will love from a country you may know nothing at all about. Indeed that would make a very fitting explanatory sub-title to the whole essence of our A to Z project.